About ten thousand words into my new novel Manhunt, I realized it needed a TERF character. It wasn’t an idea I relished, given that it would necessitate stepping into the headspace of someone who views me and everyone like me as — at best — deranged sexual predators. But without that perspective, Manhunt just wasn’t going to work as a story. In the end, I spent the summer of 2020 and the start of that same fall writing the story of Ramona Pierce, a young officer in a TERF military organization who participates in anti-trans death squads while seeing a trans sex worker on the sly. It was not a pleasant experience. I kept thinking of Bruno Ganz on the set of Downfall, his Swiss passport in the breast pocket of his uniform to ward off Hitler’s ghost as he stepped into the role of the genocidal dictator. I could feel Andrea Dworkin’s fingers on the back of my neck.
The challenge of writing about human monsters is that you have to confront the ways in which they’re exactly like you are. Most of them care about their loved ones, hold genuine ideals they believe in their hearts are necessary for the maintenance or creation of a just world, and go about their lives with little to distinguish them from anyone else. Even people who day after day engage in heinous acts of violence and oppression come home and behave much as anyone else would. Police officers, the most visible retainers of our current capitalist hellscape, may be more likely to batter and kill their spouses than the average person, but by and large there’s little to distinguish their lives from anyone else’s. The vast ideological and moral gaps between us are in actuality the product of infinitesimally fragile factors.
With Ramona, I wanted to bring that realization home to a place where the attentive reader couldn’t miss it, to show someone who takes the easy way out of personal conflicts, who doesn’t honor or respect the people she loves or desires when those feelings run up against hard questions, who fails in ways we’ve all failed, but in a situation with much higher stakes. I wanted the people reading her perspective to feel the way I do when I lay awake at night and think about the times in my life that I’ve failed, that I’ve said something cruel or ignorant or hateful, that I’ve let myself and others down, that I’ve willfully ignored the cost of my place in the world. I guess that’s the other reason it was so hard to write about a TERF. It pushed me to dwell on my own complicity in every exploitative system upon which modern American society rests.
In the end, even spending the better part of half a year thinking about what makes TERFs tick didn’t make me feel sympathetic toward their cause. It didn’t result in my opening up my heart or reaching out to bridge the vast cultural gap between myself, my loved ones, and the people who — while they might admit it only on rare occasions — want us dead or institutionally brainwashed. In a time when civility is prized above principles and the endless refrain of “both sides, both sides” can be heard at all hours of the day, thinking long and hard about what TERFs want and how they go about pursuing it, about their humanity, their connections, their belief in the righteousness of their own cause only made me feel more secure than ever in portraying them as the deranged and vicious fascists that they are.
Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin publishes on February 22, 2022.